Saturday, April 21, 2007

Adventure and Spontaneity III

I approach the boy to put my hand on his shoulder in an effort to stop this. The camel, now breathing heavily, has his head pointed away from me, the big eye on the side of his head watches me like a security camera. I am treating the camel and the boy as one. My eyes remain on the camel, as my hand blindly feels for the boys shoulder. I reach the boy, and he turns fast and looks at me. It’s the first time throughout this, that I’ve paid much attention to him. His eyes are frantic. He is in a panic state, like his shoelace is caught in a train rail. He really wants me on this camel. Who knows how the winter seasons affects someone whose dependence rests solely on the arrival of tourists. I pull back on his shoulder so he knows I really don’t want this to continue.

He has understood, he stops the noise, he lets go of the rope, and stands up to face me. As a last ditch effort he says “un photo sil vous plait monsieur?”

I don’t know who I thought I was helping by agreeing, but I did. Not one to put my self in camel kicking range… more than once in a day, I stand at the camel’s side. Why is he taking so long I think as the boy is fuddling with the buttons. The flash goes off, and as quick as the light moved to my eye, I moved away from the camel. This was not the camel adventure I was expecting, but it will more than suffice.

The boy says something to me as we walk away from the camel, but I just nodded. The beating of my heart slowly returns to normal. Probably more than I can say for the camel. Poor bastard will probably spend all day in the sun trying to get over the ckkkhhhing.

I don’t know why I felt the need to further expose and exploit traditional life here, but I had come this far, and when the boy said that he had a house here, my true goal in Mamata came rushing back.

“under ground ?” I ask

“Bien Sur” he says, do you want to see? He turns around and gives a “follow me” symbol.

We walk up over the roofs of other houses and approach the opening of large pit of a courtyard, where four or five wooden doors hang on rope hinges tied through holes in the clay. The ground closes up again as we continue walking. Then it opens onto a second pit, this one with a clay ramp at the far end.

Still a little jittered from the camel, I follow him down the earthen ramp. There is a woman ironically sweeping the clay floor of the “front entrance”. At the start of the next cave, or roofed area, there is a dog tied up, he is barking, running in circles. He looks like a smaller mutt version of a German Shepard. No doubt in my mind if he breaks the rope I’m finished. He runs to the stake, to the extremity of the rope, and back and forth, loose and tight. The damn thing is foaming at the mouth. The boy probably doesn’t even know what rabies is.

Keeping my distance I move to the wall on my right. I’m watching the dog which is now back and to my left. Concentrating on it, and stepping forward, my right foot goes further down seemingly falling through the floor. I tumble the next few feet. Regaining my footing, I go back to inspect the cause of my stumble. The hole is actually the floor of another room that cuts into the path that makes the hallway. The door is close to 3 feet tall, but the room is probably five feet tall, just deep enough to hold the hunched over camel peering out at me. You want to talk about being quick on your heels. I was out of that hole before you can say ckkkhhhh three times fast. As we continue I notice there are holes all through the cave hallway. Here a camel, here a dog, here a donkey, here a sheep, everywhere a sheep sheep. There is hay on the floor and the place smells like urine.

Contrary to when I first entered, I hope that this is just a tourist attraction and that in this day and age no one lives here. We exit the cave into the same courtyard I saw from above. All the doors are locked save one. He opens this door; inside there is a small wooden frame bed, neatly made, with some clothes hanging on wooden stakes on the wall. Closing the door, entering back into the courtyard and assessing the unpredictability of this place, I become conscious that there is really one exit from this place, and my wallet, not to mention my cell phone and camera, would equal a few months’ wages for this boy. I hate to be condescending but it would be a hell of a crime of opportunity.

I notice a dark low hole on my right. Probably the home of an animal, maybe it’s the TV room? Turning around, the hole is an endless black pit, there are no eyes peering out of this one. Seeing my interest in the hole, the boy asks if I would like a picture in front of it. In my recent contemplation of paranoia, I reluctantly oblige, but try to keep my back against the wall.

As I take my position on my haunches, the boy reads my mind. “gauche” he says (left), and points me directly in front of the hole. I swallow, and make a pathetic attempt to move left to appease him. Is this standard protocol? Get the tourist in front of the hole, and mug him? Or will I be the first. Camera flashing, I jump up to my feet and do what I can to induce the boy into making fast tracks with me, around the camel looking, dog barking, woman sweeping and up the mud ramp.

Back on the main road, he talks to me about how the police are always watching to make sure the locals aren’t taking money off the tourists. For the adrenaline that I just received, its well worth it, I just wish I could make him split the 2 dinars I give him with the camel. At the louage station we meet my old indignant friend the louage driver. “Nouveau mamata” I say, and wave goodbye to my guide.

The day passes quickly and uneventful from here. 30 minute wait for a louage to Gabes. In Gabes, I intertwine the two hours waiting for the louage to fill with sleeping on some jacket separated curtains.

Arriving in Douz, I am, as the guidebook predicted, bombarded by offers to go on a camel tour. A young, Tunisian, dressed in designer American and Italian clothing, is the first to approach me, and sticks with me after I’ve passed the menagerie of locals looking to take me anywhere’s and everywhere. The young mans name is Saber. Speaking near perfect English, he tells me there is a trip leaving this afternoon if I would like to go by camel. Or if I like there is another leaving by 4x4 later in the day.

I’ve learned to beware of anyone that speaks English. However, I put that aside at the thought of a trip into the sahara on camel for 40 dollars? How does one refuse that? A mild limp and a steady head cold are justification enough for me, and I decide to hold off on the offer. Besides if I make this tour quick, I can be in Tozeur in time to catch the 8.30 train to Tunis.

My suspicions about Saber are reinforced when a forty year old man, wearing somewhat of a Turban approaches. He too is speaking English, however a much more broken English.

“Don’t listen to him he says to me”. Leave him alone he says to Saber. The old man looks at me and says, “This guy has nothing, he just wants your money. Go to the tourist office, they’ll tell you everything you need. Saber is not offended, which suprises me. He doesn’t even revert to speaking Arabic. “And what do you have old man?” He taunts. Saber is grinning as if he has had this conversation a thousand times.

I have a hotel says the old man.
“A hotel do you?” says Saber mocking surprise
You have a guide book Saber asks me? I pull out “the lonely planet”. Go to page 220 he says, which opens exactly to the spread of Douz. Saber uses his finger to navigate past the books advise not to buy camel rides from anyone but the tourist office, and to the section on hotels.

“Let’s see” he says to the old man. Whats the name of your hotel? “Hotel Khenix, and it isn’t in there”. None the less, Saber continues to read through the names of the hotels. The man is getting aggravated and starts speaking in Arabic, then English, then Arabic. The gist of it is, Saber doesn’t care that I won’t give him my business, but the old man is embarrassed that his hotel is really nothing to anyone. The old man has enough, he says something about the tourist office and takes me by the arm.

I walk with the old man who is only muttering under his breath now. A few feet down the road we run into “a friend of his” who has a hotel. Even the Samaritans are trying to hook you up. No thanks I say, just looking for a sandwich. The hotelier offers to walk me to a restaurant. I decline, but he shows me to the main drag all the same.

Visiting two restaurants, and deciding the second is clean enough to eat at, I grab sandwich, and eat it in the taxi en route to the zone touristique. The guidebook says if you’re short on time, it is from here that you can see “the grand dune”. Essentially, a small taste of the Sahara. I take the driver; Sami’s number, so I can get picked up….by taxi….. At the Sahara desert. He drops me off at a three way intersection. Palm trees and a pave strip in front of me and on my right. A small break in a concrete wall on my left, through which I see nothing but sand.

Throwing two dinars on the seat of the taxi, slinging my school bag on my back, I break out of the taxi, like a school child running off the bus and into his mother’s arms after his first day of school. Unbelievable I think, Me, at the mouth of the Sahara. I throw my jacket over my head to protect from the pounding sun. The crumpled plastic pop bottle on the ground takes away from the authenticity, but the camel caravans I see resting in the shade of some palms brings it back. I don’t want to turn around and see the asphalt. In front of me is nothing but a sandy hill. The horizon is in front of me, and above me, a few hundred feet away, and is defined by the border between white sand and blue sky.

I break into another run, and reach the top of the hill. There is nothing in front of me now but Sahara, white sand, palm trees and returning camel caravans. “Oh F__K me” I say, “un real”. How can I be in the Sahara. I try and rationalise this. I say well this isn’t the heart of the sahara, and how authentic is it if you can walk there from asphalt.

I don’t know I where I’m standing is any less of the Sahara, than the Sahara we’ve read about and thought of as a figment of the imagination, or that couldn't accept that I was literally In…. the…. Sahara…,

I am taking pictures like a tourist fool and trying to leave nothing in the photo that will make the experience less formidable. No foot prints, no pop cans, nothing but sand and trees. After 15 minutes, the sun is unbearable. I put my camera away, waste what is left of my water, and descend the dune to reality. Fifteen minutes of unbelievable turned off by the need to catch the 8.30 train.

I call Sami, and return to the asphalt intersection. From here, I watch two decked out four Stroke Street and trails bikes bust off the pavement and go balls to the wall into the desert. Loaded down with sleeping packs, water, and gas jugs. Modern day camels setting off for one hell of a spring vacation.

Waiting for Sami, I call Jessica. Again I disauthenticate the Sahara by using my cell phone to call someone, who is to her dismay is in the middle of reality. Not sure if I was gloating or sharing the experience, but either way we both enjoyed it.

Nothing good comes of getting dropped off at the louage station. I learn that I can’t take a louage direct to Tozeur. I must go to Kelibi, and then await another for Tozeur. Not to mention that the louage leaving for Kelibi is dead empty. Throw in that my closest companion, is the person I trust the least, enter Saber, and you’ve just defined shit out of luck. My reasons for trusting him were not that founded. But in travelling I usually assume it’s safe to trust no one. Granted, there are huge exceptions to that rule, but I had a good feeling this case represented the rule, not the exception.

Grabbing a bottle of water and a pack of cookies, I start to worry that if this louage fills like it has, or has not, for the last hour, ill miss my louage out of Kelibi as well. I try and find out how much for a taxi to kelibi. It’s looking like 15 dinars. I call Sami. After some broken French and my even brokener Arabic numbers, we agree at ten dinars. Breaking my commitment to the louage driver for Kelibi, I hop in Samis recently arrived Taxi. We start to pull away, and I confirm the figure he has asked of me. Miscommunication has toyed with us, and he was actually looking for fifteen dinar.

I’m not sure if he really always intended it to be 15 dinars, or if he thought since I was already in the taxi, he could get away with it. Either way, I wasn’t quite comfortable. Sahmani I say. Excuse me. And I motion for him to return. He isn’t put out my departure, but I am. I step out of the taxi to meet an unimpressed louage driver, and Saber, who asks what’s up. Embarrassed, I explain the confusion. He laughs, but then says, so you’ll pay ten dinars to go to Kelibi?

Really at this point I would probably pay fifteen to avoid the stares of the disgruntled louage driver. I’m not sure he wouldn’t throw me in the dune on the way to Kelibi even if we do fill the louage any time soon. I know there is a louage union “local 747” somewhere with my name highlighted orange on their people to kill list.

“And you don’t mind taking a private car?” He asks
No, that’s fine. Why not I think? It’s an adventure.

Saber jogs off to a Black Peaugot 406 that’s been passing back and forth. It’s a cross between a Camry and a Cadillac. Saber hangs in the window for a minute, and then enters the car which pulls off without giving me much of a response. Returning a few minutes later, the car parks a few hundred meters away. Saber enters the centre of the circle of chatting louage drivers, shakes hands with a few, speaks some Arabic and then they all laugh quite heartily while looking my direction. Saber leaves the circle towards me and while still smiling he asks, “you ready?”

“Uh sure” I say, “to Kelibi?, Ten Dinars?” I confirm

“Yeah sure” he says, as if its an insignificant fact, not forming 100 percent of our entire relationship..

Saber leads the way to the car and insists I take the front seat. The driver asks saber in Arabic what I speak. Ah francais he says, and acknowledges me for the first time. Vous etes francais? No, Canada I say, but I speak French, . I still haven’t figured out that question, is he asking if I speak French, or if I am from France, but my response covers both bases.

The car is still parked, the driver lights a smoke and turns his body towards me and asks me if I smoke. Between puffs of tobacco, I see his teeth are all capped silver. He is almost a little bent over in the car to keep from hitting the roof. Well dressed, clean cut, he looks like an educated version of jaws from James Bond.

Kelibi? He says looking at Saber in the back seat who is talking vigorously in Arabic on the phone. Naam he says. (Yes)

Jaws I learn, is from Tunisia, but has worked in France now for a few years. He is on vacation here for a month. If striking gold was the American dream, working in France is the Tunisian dream, and I wonder why someone doing quite well is driving tourists around for small change.

He tells me that the car is a French car. Its made in France I ask? No he explains, the car was bought in France he just brought it with him for vacation. For no particular reason I ask how much it costs to ship it here. Around 1500 he says. Aller et retour? (Round trip?) No he says, just one way.
Its fifty a day for a rental car here. He’s here for thirty days, that’s 1500, where he will pay 3000 round trip. A flight to france is 300 max. So he could do it for 1800 by renting or 3000 by shipping. Things aren’t quite adding up. If he’s got money to blow, I again ask myself, why is he driving tourists around for petty cash. I look up and see a Tunisian inspection sticker. Okay Luke, calm down for a sec. Maybe he had to get it inspected to stay for a month? Maybe you’re confusing the French here. Maybe he didn’t say that he brought the car from France. Maybe he’s just playing with me.

Either way, what a f”’king idiot I am, five dollars I’m saving? I know there are four hundred people, twenty of them who are reading this, who would give me the extra five dollars to have taken the taxi.

We are on the main drag of Douz now. Road construction stops us conveniently in front of a police station directly in front of a police officer. I try and get as much exposure to the window as I can. If these guys are local criminals, the police officer standing out front will surely have a problem with them driving around with a tourist…wont he? Or was I hoping that some super sonic cop would be on staff to make up for my stupid decisions.

Maybe I thought, they’re going to Kelibi anyway, and he just wants some gas money… Yeah, that makes sense. Shortly after the police station, we pull into a series of small alleys. I foolishly try and keep track of where we are going. Jaws sees my head spinning left, right, behind, trying to note the surroundings and he says t’inquiet pas (don’t worry). DON’t worry? Who said I am worrying? And that’s easy for you to say, you’re going to get out of here alive.

Jaws pulls turns into an incredibly narrow alley, so tight that he has to pull the car over so close the passenger side door, my passenger side door won’t open. The other side has about 18 inches. Saber slides between the frame and the door and enters the house nearby for a few minutes and returns with a knapsack. That’s about enough to set my imagination on fire. What was so urgent that he needed a knapsack for? Looks about the same length as a lead pipe to me. I fumble for the window, thankfully it opens but all it has done has exposed a dirty sandstone wall four inches out from the car door parallel to the window.

Saber gives directions in Arabic, we pull out of the alley, retrace our steps, past robo cop and move North out of town. On the road, there are periodic homes and businesses appearing and disappearing as things in a car window so often do. On the right is a large dune running parallel about 100 feet from the road. I suspect that the other side is probably sand and palms as far as one could see or run.

I’m playing everything over in my head. I can’t get over the holes in the story. I’m picking the skin on my thumb like the man in the back of the louage 12 hours earlier. Oh how safe that scene seems now. I want to reach for a drink of water, but I am scared that I’ll need it to stave off thirst when they throw me in the desert. I want to eat a cookie, but I’m scared I’ll need it to stave off hunger. I want to speak, but I am scared they’ll smell fear on my breath.

We pass a police road block, standard Tunisian road sight. The uniforms make me feel safe. Surely these guys will have a problem with this situation. My hopes are dashed, when jaws rolls down the window to receive a friendly greeting from the fully dressed officer working the road block.

What I interpret to be a plain clothes police officer also approaches the car and sticks his hand in to shake with all three of us. That is to say, with them, and with me. The man enters the car. I try and assess if he has joined them, or he has joined me. He is an associate of the police that is clear. So I am safe, or I am screwed, screwed beyond belief.

------------------ If you've had enough of the cliched stops in the middle of the story, letme know. See you next week. -----------------------------------------------

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tunisian Time Change

What I didnt tell you, is that by Friday I meant Saturday afternoon. It appears the Tunisian Tardiness has consumed me too.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Adventure and Spontaneity II

(Scheduling conflicts and internet inavailablity prevented regular posts. More frequent posts can be expected for the next while. To compensate, please find a a seven pager. If it is two long, theres a dashed line representing a convenient stop.)

Adventure and Spontaneity II

Arriving in Gabes near 4:00 am, we groggily left the train. Climbing down the steps we found another train directly in front of us, parallel to our train. We were forced to file like animals between the two trains until a break allowed us to cross the tracks, into the station, and to scatter our separate directions. I was still not sure if I would board the waiting bus for Tatouine, or wait until daylight and catch the first Louage to Nouveau Mamata, one went south one went west. From what I read they were both ghost towns with their highlights being the touch of star wars, and some underground houses. Hesitation made the decision for me, the bus was now out of seats and there would be no way I would stand for 2 hours starting now. I would go west to Nouveau Mamata.

Entering the train station, and taking a "church pew" like bench, I begin rooting through my belongings. Pulling out cheerio’s, some yoghurt, and my guidebook, I starting preparing my breakfast as if I was sitting at the kitchen table in East Tracadie NS. I knew I was being stared at, I don’t blame them, it was four o’clock in the morning, in a small railway station, I was the only foreigner, I was mixing my cheerio’s into my yoghurt and crunching the cheerio’s like I was walking on fresh laid gravel.

Finishing my gourmet meal, I venture into the street. Doing my best to cloak that I am an un informed foreigner, and that I am totally clueless about my surroundings, I hide in an alley so I can open up my guide book and get my bearings. It has not worked; before even finding the right page, I am approached by a young man. In French he asks where I am going. Heb Nimsh Nouveau Mamata. He kind of looks at me strange and begins speaking Arabic. "Lay lay lay" I say, "manakash arabie".

Ah he says, and starts speaking in French. Seconds later my secret is revealed that my French is poor too, and he switches a third time and is now speaking English. He shows me to the louage station, which is nothing more than a few concrete blocks surrounding the base of an Esso sign. A dim orange street light illuminates a woman sitting on the base of the Esso sign with a baby in her arms crying. I wonder if they are without a place to sleep, or if they’re waiting for the louage too. I suspect it’s the latter but debate taking a picture regardless, because if it is the former, it is a scene far removed from Canadian reality, worthy of a picture. I decide against it and continue the conversation with my personal guide. Answering his question, I say I am from Canada.

He picks his head up a few degrees and looks at me, he says somewhat in wonder, and inhales deeply while saying “Oh Canada”

He then explains the reason for the wonder “this is the first time I have spoken to a Canadian “

“I tried to go to Canada, I had the money and everything to do my studies, but they would not let me go. You know why? “

“Why?” I ask suspecting I will be told regardless.

“Because of my name” he says. “I had everything prepared, but they wouldn’t let me enter because my name is Osama. They think because my name is like Osama Bin Laden, that I am a terrorist. After they told me I was rejected, the lady asked me if I would apply again. I say no way I am going to spend my time and money on applying again."
I tell him that I hoped that wasn’t the reason but I couldn’t say for sure. I tell him that maybe the person who reviewed his application thought that, but not all Canadian people thought that way. He doesn’t seem to hear me and continues talking. He was probably not wrong to not hear me. I did hope it wasn’t true, but in reality what percentage of Canadians wouldn’t make a derogatory comment, or hold some inhibitions with employing, or spending time with an individual with this name, let alone legitimately be scared. I try and rationalise in my head that maybe the Canadian government is trying to protect its people; maybe it would cause some problems having an Osama moving through the system. If it's true don't you think that the government is mollycoddling us more than protecting us?

I later ask a travelled friend, if he thought there was merit to the claim. He tells me he doesn’t know, but he knows there’s a law in the United States that if anyone tries to send money to someone living in the US named Osama or Mohammad or another religious name, the money is stopped. I think of a CNN interview where they tried to tear up, Democratic Presidential Candidate, Barack Obama, and all they could come up with was his last name sounded like Osama, and that he dressed like Mahmoud Madinajad, the Iranian prime minister, who is "suspected of pursuing nuclear ambitions".

Returning in my head to Mamamta, Osama is growing more passionate. Its 4.30am, on a street with me, him, and a mother and crying baby. He says “Some people ask me, why don’t you change your name” “I’m not going to change my fucking name” It’s my name, I like it. You change your name if you want. My friends even make fun of me for it, when I’m walking down the street, I hear hey bin laden!”

Assessing, that he has been waiting for this Canadian for quite some time, I change the conversation. He works in Tunis at a call centre which explains his English. I learn that Gabes is a factory town and the pollution is very bad, after a few other tidbits, the conversation returns his visa or lack thereof. “You know he says, that woman at the desk, she holds all the power. All of us Tunisians who want to go to Canada, she decides. I’m not sure if he's wrong or right, so it's hard to console or negate his anger. I try and change the subject less drastically by asking what he knows about Canada. He discusses some schools in Quebec, and the notorious quebecuois French. He was never mad at me, but at the situation, and while the conversation is reverting to a normal friendly level, the louage arrives.

Thanking him for his help, we shake hands and I depart for the louage. The louage driver is wearing a traditional Tunisian men's cloak, essentially a hooded housecoat. There is religious music playing on the tape deck. The baby has stopped crying and has joined its mother into the louage. We are four waiting to fill up 8 seats. With streets this bare, it is unlikely we’ll be filling these seats quickly. I decide step out of the louage and wait, I may as well be trying to sort out cultural differences with my friend Osama than sitting here in this stuffy louage.

Osama is glad to see me, and I am greeted by a piece of paper with his email address and phone number. I suspect he was intending to stop the louage to give it to me; it appears I was correct and he didn't really blame me for the problems of the Canadian immigration system. We talk for awhile about subjects unrelated to his name. Osama’s brother arrives on a scooter, he departs, telling me to call if I have any problem.

Even to write his name in this blog sounds a little different. Due to the events of Sept 11th, the name has become something far larger than the name. It's like saying "I was talking to Santa Clause the other day…."

Excuse me for my second comparison between a “terrorist” and Santa Clause in 2 or 3 blogs, however it lends credit to my Canadian relative who says that the war on terror is spoken of like you are fighting the boogey man. An imaginary figure to keep you scared and believing that you need your government to keep you safe.

Again, I make my way to the louage which now has 7 including me and the driver. A man approaches and is trying to negotiate the fare. The louage driver says something and the man leaves. He returns minutes later, this time with a little more money he has bummed at the recently opened café. It appears the louage driver agrees with my diagnosis that it could be awhile to fill the last seat as he accepts the bargain and the man enters.

The man climbs over a bag of baby paraphernalia, into the back, and sits next to me. The driver, taking down his hood, and turning down the music, puts the transmission into drive. The interior light has been shut off, and I am left to study my new neighbour, his finger nails are very stained with Tobacco. He reeks of cigarette smoke. His face is twitching, and he is pinching his right pointing finger between his left thumb and left pointing finger. He is scratching feverishly his left thumbnail with his right. It does nothing to build comfort in my situation. I would like to sleep, but would like to have my wallet, passport, and remain an untouched person when I wake.

Supposing that if he will freak out, he’ll do it whether I am sleeping or not. I do what I can to ensure my passport and cell phone are safe, and pull my jacket over my head, in a pathetic attempt to rest my head on the curtain without directly laying my face on the space that a thousand customers have probably laid there face before.


Waking up in Nouveau Mamata, I find a typical Tunisian small town. A collection of adjoining white houses, with decorative black, blue, or rusted iron metal gates, a gas station, and more convenience stores selling coke and phone cards than you can shake a stick at.

I check out the louage station, the louage for Vielle Mamata is empty. I tell the driver I will go with him and I will return. I begin walking in the direction perpendicular to the main route. I am sure this will take me to the edge of town. After climbing two walls of a dusty soccer stadium, the second wall takes me exactly there, the edge of town. I can see maybe four or five homes. "Homes", not "houses".

Resting my back against a low dilapidated wall, opening my school bag, I pull out what’s left of my cheerio’s and open another yoghurt.

The sun rises, a neon red orange. I think if I walked a mile or two towards the sun, I would find the sign leading me directly to the middle of nowhere. Its reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s dream after eating too much Chilli, where he finds himself talking to a red dog from the top of a pyramid with the red moonlight in the distance.

After taking a few pictures, I pack my empty cheerio box in my bag, making my way around the walls, I pass a hunched over woman sweeping hear stoop. Feet away rest a stands a donkey munching a pile of hay. A dog raises his head but after a low growl loses interest and goes back to Sleep.

At the louage station, the driver going to Vielle Mamata starts asking me a slew of questions.
“Will you stay in Vielle Mamata?”
Where will you go after Vielle Mamata?
“Why are you alone?” Not the most appropriate question, or one that I care to elaborate on, and revel that my nearest acquaintance, let alone friend, aside Osama, is ten hours away. I do my best to close the conversation, but he continues.

“Will you go to Tamrezet?”

“No” I reply

“No?!” he asks, acting both surprised and offended
“Oh its necessary you visit there, there are many Berber homes (Tunisian Indigenous).”
“If you want” he says like he is offering something special for me “I will take you to Vielle Mamata, leave you there for a while, come get you and take you to tamrezhet and return you to Gabes.”

What time will we get back to Gabes?
“Ten am” he responds.
How much?
Sizing me up he answers, “vingt dinars” (twenty dinars)

Acting as appalled as he was that I wasn't going to Tamrezhet, I say “whoooooo, Bersha Fulooz” (A lot of Money)

“combien?” (How much) he says

“je n’avais pas un beaucoup de l’argent” (I don’t have a lot of money) I reply, hopefully acting better than he has when pretending it was a good price

“combien est-ce vous avez” (How much is it that you have )

“Pas un beaucoup” (Not a lot), and I pull my hand out of my pocket showing him under ten dollars

“Pour vous, dix dinar" (for you, ten dinar,) Again pretending this is really something special just for me.

I tell him I don’t know, that for now I would just go to Vielle Mamata with him and possibly I would change my mind when I arrive.

He is a little pissed that he stuck his neck out to cut his price in half and still got no bite. There are now only two people in the Louage, I have lots of time to decide.

I wander to the curb in the middle of the street and take a seat. Shortly after the driver follows me and pitches to take me to Vielle Mamata, and than take me to some Berber homes in Tamrezhet for five dinars. After that he says, I can find a drive to Douz from Tamrezhet.

Recalling my guidebooks "getting there and away" section on Tamrezhet, transportation in and out of there is sparse, and I suspect on this holiday it will be no better.

"How will get to Douz?" ie you think I'm too dumb too know there's no way out of there, except when you try and get 20 dinars to take me to gabes after I'm stranded.

"I have a friend at a café there, I will call him and he will look for people passing through"

I don't trust him let alone his questionably existent friend, and I repeat that I would like to go just to Vielle mamata and maybe will change my mind.

A bus arrives; I enter it to ask the driver when the next is going to Douz. Nodding he says fatha fatha Douz, ( Enter Enter, Douz)

I try and explain in French that I don’t want to go now; I want to go after I return from Vielle Mamata. The driver and his three occupants are getting impatient and the driver is trying to close the door. I give up and leave the bus.

I return to the general area of the louage driver, He is my only acquaintance, yet the only person who is not impressed with me within hundreds of miles. He believes I planned to change my mind and not go to Mamata at all, but go to Gabes with the bus driver.

The bus has already left, and the louage driver asks sarcastically
“You’re not going with him?

“No, I would like to go with you to Vielle Mamamta? “

“Oh, now you want to go to Viele Mamata with me, only now that the bus not going there.” I begin to explain why I was talking to the bus driver but shortly after cut my losses and make my way to the louage to reserve a seat.

We leave a while later; a few minutes and we are out of the town, there is now nothing. A one lane paved road, with the occasional guard rail. Now and again, we stop to let someone off, or if we have an empty seat, we pick someone up. I wonder where the people that leave are going, or where the people who enter have came from.

Vielle Mamata Is the land of the trogolyte home, the trogolytes to avoid the sun had made their homes under ground, but this was extreme. For tens of miles, I could see nothing, but low rolling hills, the odd tuft of grass then a steep rising mountain in the background which met the horizon.

Vielle Mamamta appears a slow thirty minutes later, paying the driver, he returns what I interpret to be a dirty look, and says Shookran (Thank you)

“Shookran” I say, and make my way into the village. I start walking, occasionally readjusting my direction based on the advice of a passer by. I am looking for Hotel Sidi bo driss. It is one of the sites of Star Wars, but it is really the only thing that I know exists here, and my real goal is to be invited inside an everyday inhabited trogolyte home.

The entrance of the hotel is a cave cut into a mud bank. Inside, there are some left over star wars moulds stuck into the mud carved walls. Occasionally there is a courtyard where I can look 7 -10 feet up to see ground level. I am taking a few pictures when approached by a waiter. He takes me for a quick tour, takes a few pictures of me making “star wars” like poses and then shuffles the change in his hand, not so discreetly gesturing for a tip. I offer to give him 500 millemes, (1/2 dinar) he shakes his head, and looks at my hand which is closed around some small change. I open it, and he reaches in and takes out a dinar, I reach back and take back my 500 millemes. He smiles, not impressed I took back the 500 millemes. I smile back not impressed that he had a problem with my tip.

Leaving, I encounter a youth who I had asked earlier for directions. He has a shop and tells me fatha fatha (welcome, welcome), I enter and buy two postcards for a dinar, he points me to a trail that leads atop of hotel sidi bo driss.

I follow the trail. I look down into the sidi bo driss, take a few photos, but continue on for my real goal. I have left the small touristic zone and am approaching the actual village. I see woman hanging clothes, children playing while their fathers work nearby. There is an old car with no tires and a tarp over the window. I wonder how the hell it got here. I try to pay strict attention, as at any minute, there could be an opening in the ground exposing the courtyard of a house with its floor the same 7-10 feet down. It's difficult to keep my eye on the ground as the surround landscape is incredible. I am essentially in the middle of a circle of low mountains, no rocks, and little vegetation, all brown sand and sandy clumps hosting small plants. A communications tower sprouts from the top of one mountain top.

The fact that there are probably 300 people still sleeping in front of me, but all under ground is a little bit surreal. Noticing a small Mountain goat braying, and digging the ground with his horns, I quit pretending that I am not a tourist, and take out my camera. Shortly after, two larger goats appear, and start scraping the ground with their front hooves. I take the hint and make ground fast back towards the main road.

Along the "main road" I encounter two or three adults leading a string of 15-20 children. They are all brightly dressed, and many are toting drums and whistles. Clearly some sort of festival and I assume it is associated with the birthday of Islam’s Last Prophet Mohammed, which is celebrated today.

I follow the parade, at a few hundred meters back, and from this vantage, I see people are literally popping out of the ground, freshly showered cleanly dressed and coming from all over to join them. It's like watching aunts move in and out of an ant hill. They are moving towards a mosque on the hill. As they approach the mosque, I watch from a distance. A young teenager approaches me. Speaking French and a little English, we run through the basics, did you see the hotels yet, what country are you from. How do you find Tunisia? He asks me if I’ve ridden a camel. I tell him not yet, and he tells me he has a camel. I respond to his question, that “yes I would like to ride one”

We enter lowland the size of an infield of a baseball diamond. In the middle, there is a camel. A stud sticks through the top of his nose and comes out the natural hole. A faded blue rope less than a foot long is tying his front two feet together, his back feet being tied by a yellow rope about three feet long to a stake in the ground. There is an impression a few inches deep in the ground where the camel has circled back and forth within his three feet of freedom.

Taking the rope tied to the stud in the camel's nose, the boy starts pulling the camel towards the ground and making a ckkhhhhhhh noise, as if he is trying to well up some spit in his mouth. The camel bows on its front knees. Then pushing on the camels hump and bringing the camel to its knees he makes a gesture for me to mount. I ask him to go first; he grabs the hump and swings himself up like he is mounting a bicycle somewhat too large.

As soon as the boy dismounts, the camel jumps to its feet; the boy begins repeating the process. This time the camel doesn’t want to go. He starts making the ckkkhhh louder. And starts yelling at the camel and pulling harder on the stud in its nose. “Mish Mush Que” I say, (its not serious), ie I don’t need to ride it.

The boy believing that the size of tip he will get will be directly influenced by whether or not I ride this camel, he continues to make the noise.
"Mish mush que" I say. Finally the camel drops on all four. He points towards the back.
Here goes nothing…. how many chances am I going to have to ride a camel. I walk behind the camel envisioning stories of cows and horses kicking farmers and knocking them uncold, but also making the unfriendly comparison that unlike most cows, the hip of this beast is at eye level.

I am quite nervous as I walk behind the camel. I reach up and my arms touch a point on the camels back about 20 percent of the camel's length. Just as I rest some part of my weight behind his hump, the beast bucks and takes off forward. His acceleration causes me to slide backward, off his hump and stumbling onto my feet.

The camel makes it a few feet until the rope stops him. I take off running backwards, away from the centre of the rope. The boy, taking the camel by the rope on his nose, begins pulling him to the ground again. He is pissed at the camel. How often it is a tourist ventures here, and the camel is gypping him of a dinar or two. “Ckkkhhhh ckhhh”,He screams Ckkkhhhh ckhhh, the camel is resisting strongly, the rope in his hand is becoming tighter, the noise he makes is becoming louder. I can see the stud turning inside the camel's nose increasing the size of the unnatural hole. The camel is wincing.

“Mish mush que” I am growing louder too, "arête, Mish mush que”.
He is bloody screaming at the camel, I am bloody screaming at him. The boy isn’t even acknowledging me now. He is certain the louder he goes, the more likely the camel will drop.

I begin approaching the boy to put my hand on his shoulder to gesture its okay, or to pull him away from the camel whatever it takes to stop this abuse which I have started.

-----------------------------Will post part III before next Friday--------------------

Monday, April 2, 2007

Adventure and spontaneity

Adventure and spontaneity, in my mind are fairly inseparable. Adventure and precariousness are also somewhat synonymous. Thus, i should have known precariousness lie ahead and avoided such a sponteaneous situation, however......

Here, is the spontaneity the precariousness will be detailed in the next blog.

I learned Friday morning at 10 that Saturday was the anniversary of the birth of Mohammad and thus I did not work. By Friday afternoon at 1, I had decided that tonight at 8 I would go Southwest 12 hours by train to Tozeur, then loop east by louage (shuttle) to Gabes, tour the south and then 10 hours North by train arriving back in Tunis at 5.00 am Monday morning all in time for a shower. All in time to catch the 6.55 train to work . At this point, I thought maybe rosenburg would accompany me and bring down the hotel costs and provide a little backup in case of emergency.

By Friday at 3, I had changed my trip 180 degrees. Id leave at 10 for Gabes by train and return via the train from tozeur, …and would travel alone.

Work departure depends on the current frequency of the bosses’ brainwaves, thus when he wasn’t around at 6:00 and 0 seconds I made a break for it. He called two minutes later and my excuse of already being at the train station seemed to suffice.

7.30 pm Friday, My bags are packed and I’m leaving for downtown to pick up some cash from an ATM and a quick bite to eat. I should arrive for the train at least 1.5 hours early to get a seat for the long ride ahead. As I had been to three doctors for a bum foot and had a cold and didn’t feel the need to overexert myself, I wanted to make sure to leave extra early in case I couldn’t find a cab.

7.45 First bank machine fails, okay, nothing extraordinaire; this machine has been out of cash before.

8.50 I’m on my fifth bank machine. Maybe RBC has cut down my card because I’ve been using it in a foreign country. Maybe I need to use Visa, but have learned that you need a pin to use visa and RBC avion visa doesn’t come with a pin. I’ve been breaking into light jogs. My nose is running faster than the mucus I wipe on my sleeve will dry. And my run is a mere fast limp. Charla labis I say, Tunisian for god willing it will be okay. I know I have 40 dinars and ill pass over that on the trains alone. There’s no way I can leave for the south with no money, a bum leg and a cold. Just not smart.

I’m about to try the last atm on the main drag. I’m outside hotel Africa, one of the ritziest hotels on the boulevard so I should be safe to discuss finances on the phone. I hear broken tunisien English nearly pleading with a much better English. I turn to see, one of the cronies that has hassled me before talking to a well dressed well spoken English man at an atm. Great I think

I check the funds on my phone 5.00dinar left, and 1.00dinar a minute to Canada to call RBC. Dreading the thought of spending 4 minutes navigating automatic menus and being on hold I dial the number. First contact with a human I’m disconnected after ten seconds. Second call I don’t even make it to a human. 2.45dinar left on phone. This is terribly ironic; I’m passing all my money at my last hope of getting money for the trip.

Third call I get a human, I explain my situation he asks me where I am and asks for some information, but I can’t distinguish what he says.

Horns everywhere people chattering I say “what? “

“Your password sir?”

I start coughing, something goes in the wrong tube and my eyes star watering just a freak coincidence but did nothing to bolster the confidence of Jason at RBC that I, Luke DeCoste, was legitimately in Tunisia having problems at my 6th atm. I get the word out and apologise for coughing. He tells me my account is fine, but he would like to check one last thing. I say fine, and hear “on hold” music for a few seconds “Beep Beep”

Phone goes dead, out of money.

Frantic I try the same atm closer to the train. Its the only one that had the actual “interact” symbol, not just the “visa” symbol. No luck.

Just then a man approaches me;
“ ah you are looking for money he says?”
("No shit surelock" I think as i walk away from ATM)

“Visa or master card?”

“Neither I say” showing him my bank card.

There’s one here ill show you he says and starts walking beside me. I assume he is just looking to help me to get a tip.

I hold up my hand and say “mish mush que” several times, Tunisian for its not serious. I.e. don’t worry about it buddy I don’t trust you leave me alone.

Making an offended, “okay”, he walks in the other direction. Possibly he sensed my frantic state and was legitimately trying to help. More likely he was one of Cardels long lost brothers looking to score a buck or two.

Walking in the direction he pointed, as I know rue de Holland will take me to the train station I say “frig it”. I have 40 dinars, 30 American dollars, I can do this. I’ll use my visa everywhere I can, and not eat much. I start thinking this all over. A cold, a limp, travelling more than ½ ways across a foreign country, alone, with no money.

I thought of all the people who possibly would miss me and how they would aggressively recommend, that I not do, what I was about to do, that is purchase the train ticket. Charla labis I say.

Check my watch, its 9.15. Not that I want to, but regardless, there is not enough time to run to my apartment and borrow money.

At that point, on my left the glowing orange sign “bianq” appears .
Last ones a charm I hope.
Insert card.
Enter pin,
look over shoulder,
watch screen,
look over shoulder.
With drawl,
look over shoulder,
80 dinars,
look over shoulder while wiping nose,
look back to machine,
ATM reads please take card,

&@², No cash, . Taking out my card, starting to walk away, I hear the machine wheeling inside.

No I say in disbeleif, and return.

Yes I say in excitement , the machine winds for a second before opening up the door and spitting out 80 dinars in my face.

Charla labis I laugh, I grab the money stuff it in my pocket. And break into a light jog. At the train station, I try to buy a second class ticket, but the vendor says, deuxieme class, something something in Arabic, and I hear “melboul”. Tunisien for Crazy. Okay I think Premiere class and pass him 20.50 for a one way to Gabes.

After picking up some cheerio’s and yogurt at the convenience store at the station,I make my way to the lineup for the number 17 to Gabes. I’m at the back of the line, like hogs, we wait for the gait to open, wait for the train to arrive.

At 9.45 the train arrives. Many people have arrived, I am in the front 20 percent now.

The gate opens.

Like, Olympians, we are off. We rush for the train. Unfortunately; at the same time, people are rushing off the train. Switching my school bag to the front so no one can pick pocket I start to move like hell. I don’t even know what first class looks like. I keep pushing forward. A space opens, enter that, and then you’re face to face with a mean momma carrying bags as big as she is. Quick left, a group of well dressed people, Ah this has to be first class. People are coming out of the train; people are trying to get in. At this length of a train ride, no one wants to stand.

The people resemble what it would be like if you took two brooms and pushed the bristles into each other. Just a meshing mess, where no one is going anywhere fast. I see a man pushing his way through the crowd.

Following behind him, I contemplate grabbing on to his school bag to assure I can follow this human snow plough. “He” makes “our” way to a door that has a big 1 beside it. Perfect I think, however the door won’t open. He starts pushing, we start pushing together. Someone pulls from the inside, poof, the door opens. We scramble in, managing to get a window seat, and realising it even reclines I begin to relax. The shoes pop, money and cell goes in breast pocket, recline the seat, stick my ticket in the trim beside me so I wont be bothered by ticket man, throw my jacket over my face and start the path to a deep sleep.

(I had a few complaints when I left last time in the middle of a predicament, so I will leave in the middle of a deep sleep, but check back in a day or two for the real substance,

Best, Luke)